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Lembit Öpik rose—

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Lembit III.

Lembit Öpik: Lembit I. Aside from the somewhat distasteful language that the right hon. Gentleman has uncharacteristically used in his contribution, may I remind him which Government most promoted the use of Orders in Council in the House? Was it not the Conservatives in their 18 years in government who set the precedent for using Orders in Council to govern this country much more than any Government beforehand? Therefore, is he willing to condemn the very Government of whom he was a part?

Mr. Gummer: If that were true—

Lembit Öpik: It is true.

Mr. Gummer: The hon. Gentleman should listen to the end of my sentence. If that were true, it is also true that a further and extraordinary extension of that has been done by the Government and is being proposed now. If I were to decide to discuss all the Orders in Council in the past with the hon. Gentleman, you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would soon stop me, so I will concentrate on the Orders in Council as dealt with in the amendment. I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that it does not help in a logical argument to say, "Because you did it, he can do it." I am arguing something quite different.

Let us not become caught up in what the Liberals say is distasteful. If what I said was in any way distasteful, of course I withdraw any lack of taste in the sentence, but I think that the hon. Gentleman knows precisely what I mean. Liberals are illiberal when it comes to the promotion of their own views. They are thoroughly illiberal, and they would prefer the Government to impose such things than to give the public the chance to choose them. That is the fundamental issue. We are talking about something much more important than merely the way in which Orders in Council will be discussed.

David T.C. Davies: Does my right hon. Friend agree that both the Labour party and the Conservative party in government have taken various steps to support a decentralisation of powers, either through the Wales Office or the Welsh Assembly, about which I am less enthusiastic, whereas the Liberal party, which has always claimed to be the party of devolution, had a perfect opportunity to introduce home rule when it was last in government and chose not to do so?

Mr. Gummer: The great point that my hon. Friend makes is clear: Liberals in power prefer to keep hold of that power and use it in the way that they want, rather than sharing it. It is only when they are out of power that they are keen on the sharing bit. It is a serious issue to
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find the Liberal party on the side of the proposal, but I would expect that from it. I am much more unhappy about the Welsh nationalists, because the word "principle" means something to Welsh nationalists, and it therefore distinguishes them from my experience of the Liberal party. I always remember the person on the doorstep who told me—[Hon. Members: "Oh, come on."] Labour Members will like this if they wait a moment—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. What is more important in this matter is whether the occupant of the Chair likes it, and we are now getting a little wide of the mark. The right hon. Gentleman ought to draw himself back to the amendment.

Mr. Gummer: I will certainly do that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, although I had hoped to give you a moment of amusement in what might otherwise be a long debate on detail.

If we now take the principle, being obnoxious, that the Government should arrogate to themselves powers that should be properly in the hands of a democratic Assembly, we should ask ourselves which democratic Assembly should have those powers. It seems to me that that is what the amendment deals with. It would mean that if there were to be devolution, it would have to take place in two ways: Parliament would have to decide to offer it and the people of Wales, in this case, would have to decide through a referendum that they wanted it. The Government wish to avoid both those principles. They do not want Parliament properly to scrutinise each item of devolution. As my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) said earlier, such items are part of a group, rather than a series of single items. The Government do not want this Parliament to make those decisions, nor do they want them to be offered to the people of Wales.

6.30 pm

My hon. Friend, with typical generosity, suggested that it would be valuable to put part 3 to a referendum. If the Government offered to do that, I understand that we would be prepared to withdraw amendment No. 4, because it would then be possible for the people of Wales to say what they thought of this political stitch-up. It would also be possible for us to flush out the varying attitudes to this proposal in the governing party. However, when the referendum was proposed, there was, if I may say so delicately—I hope that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), who asserted that he was not keen on my language, does not mind the word that I am about to use—a certain amount of tittering. We imagined going round Wales saying, "Would you like the Government to have a power of Orders in Council in order to be able to present things that you ought to be able to decide on?" I can imagine the enthusiasm with which people would rush out to vote on such a proposal. The tittering came from not only this side of the House. One or two Labour Members—and there are only one or two in the Chamber—managed, rather ineffectively, to cover up their tittering.

The question is more serious than was supposed. The people of Wales are not being offered a referendum on part 3 because the Government know, first, that they
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would be held up to ridicule and, secondly, that the people of Wales would say no. They would say no on one of two grounds: either because they wanted proper devolution, which is why I would say no, or because they thought that they did not want any more devolution, which is what some of my colleagues might think. They would certainly accept that this part of the Bill is a palpable ruse. It is a fake and a fraud, and not a proper thing to bring in front of the House. That is why the Opposition propose its removal. We are democrats and we want Parliament, whether it is the UK Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, or, indeed, the Scottish Parliament, to make decisions democratically.

My difficulty is that the Minister has been put in an impossible position because he does not really believe what he is saying. I know that because he is a very good arguer on most things. He is clear, concise, comprehensible and comprehensive. On this matter, he has been opaque, long-winded, imprecise and, if I may say so, incomprehensible. My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield is a man whose mind is sharp and who seizes the point rapidly. The fact that he got to this point in the debate before he understood what the Government were about is a comment not on his intelligence, but on the Government's imprecision and, I think, their lack of knowledge of their own proposals.

I do not think that you were in the Chair at the time, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but, interestingly, there was a point at which Members on the Government Front Bench and the Benches behind were busy trying to discuss what the Government's policy actually was. It was clear that the hon. Member for Wrexham put things in a way that did not quite fit what the Minister thought he had been saying. It certainly did not quite fit what we thought the Minister had been saying. If one has been around as long as I have, one begins to get suspicious when a Minister is imprecise, unclear and unable to communicate a key part of a Bill—the part that amendment No. 4 would remove. One begins to wonder whether there is something up and whether things are not quite as they seem—of course, they are not at all as they seem.

Right the way through the debate, the House has been told that we are creating a system that will enable the Welsh Assembly to get more legislation through more rapidly and more sensibly, in terms that are denied it because of the heavy burden on this House. That would sound all right if it were not for the fact that the important necessary phrase, "and therefore the Government have decided to take things into their own hands," is missing from that statement. The Government have decided that they will invent a system that ensures that control is no longer in the hands of this democratic Parliament. However, it will be put not into the hands of the democratic Assembly, but, in fact, into the Government's hands. That must be wrong for everyone, but because the matter does not have to be put to a referendum, the cracks between the various and interestingly different views of members of the Labour party can be papered over. That is why I come back to wooing the Welsh nationalists.

The Welsh nationalists know perfectly well what the Government are about. When it comes to an election, they will say that the provisions are about avoiding the
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fundamental question of whether the Assembly is going to be a Parliament or not. If the Welsh nationalists were true to their principles, they would say, "Look here, we are not going to provide the cover for this. We are not going to stand in front of the Government and pretend that this is another step on the way to devolution. Instead, we are going to stand up and tell the Government to give us part 4. We will fight them on the doorsteps and make sure that we win a referendum. Give us part 4 and do not palm us off with part 3." That is the heart of the opposition that is summed up in amendment No. 4.

I, who have gone into the Lobbies with my Welsh nationalist friends, sometimes against a Whip, ask them to think seriously about what their position will do to them in the Principality. It will enable people to say very simply, "These are people who are more interested in supporting a bureaucratic fudge than standing for the central issue of democratic control over the future of the people of Wales." In the past, there were better ways of doing things than the way that we ended up with, but, having got where we have, let us not allow ourselves to be led down the dangerous path that the Government have proposed.

If we do not agree to the amendment, we will set a precedent that could be used much more widely. Mr. Deputy Speaker, you have not sat through every hour of the debate on the Bill—although it may have seemed like it from time to time—but it is right that the important subject of Welsh Government matters and the Principality should have occupied so much of our time. Those of us who live in the county of Suffolk—one of the six counties that, for the purpose of administrative regions, the Government call the east of England—note that we have not been given the equivalent time to discuss forced regionalisation, which we do not want and which involves the transfer of powers relating to our police, ambulances and hospitals to a central body in a region. We are concerned that the pattern evident here, a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) rightly raised, will enable the Government to say, "If this is how we do it for Wales, why don't we do it for the non-existent region of the east of England? There is a lot of business in Parliament. Why don't we bypass the people of that region, just as we have bypassed the people of Wales?".

My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield has to accept that I speak on his side on this occasion not only because I think that we should stand up for the ability of a different part of the United Kingdom to govern itself in a more effective and direct way than the bureaucratic answer being presented by the Minister, but because those of us who are being threatened by another bureaucratic nightmare called regionalisation see in this clause a means of removing from us the right to make decisions through local government that we have at the moment.

As my hon. Friend says, we tabled the amendment because we need to stand against something that is at the heart of this Government's activity—constantly emasculating the House of Commons, removing from us our powers of control and not allowing us to devolve those powers as we think fit subject to a referendum of the people of that area. If, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you feel that I am moving away from the amendment, I remind
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you that it would remove from the Bill the very trick that could be used to get round the problem that this Government cannot win a referendum in England either. Why on earth are they not offering a referendum to the people of Wales? I will tell you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—it is because they know very well that they would lose it, and this Government have referendums only if they think that they can win them.

We want to get rid of part 3 altogether, but I would hope that the Government, in answering, would offer something in its place. I am sure that the real answer is for us to withdraw our amendment and allow the Government to move forward to a referendum on either part 3 or part 4. I suggest that it should be on part 4, and I hope in that case that I would find myself campaigning in the more pleasant company of the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) rather than that of the Father of the House.

At least we would be arguing about reality, democracy, clarity, transparency and consistency. At this moment, we are offered something that is opaque, inconsistent, unclear and fundamentally dishonest. It is for that reason that I am pleased that this party has insisted that we stand up for democracy and against the growing bureaucratisation of our society, led by a Government who are frightened of Parliament, which is best illustrated by the fact that they have a Prime Minister with the worst record of coming here of any Prime Minister since we first started.

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